The American Association of University Professors on Saturday added the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to its list of administrations censured for violating academic freedom, the organization said in a news release.
Delegates to the national faculty group unanimously agreed with a report stating UNL violated the academic freedom of English department lecturer and Ph.D. student Courtney Lawton when it removed her from the classroom in an effort to end an ongoing backlash against the university.
The assembly voted to place UNL among the 56 institutions on the Censure List, signaling to the academic community as well as the general public that UNL's administration "has not adhered to the generally recognized principles on academic freedom and tenure" maintained by the AAUP since 1940.
Saturday's action is the latest in a saga that began last August when Lawton was filmed protesting a recruiting event for Turning Point USA, a conservative student group, on UNL's campus.
Video of the protest spread widely across social media and led to a prolonged response from conservatives who cited it as evidence of liberal bias on UNL's campus.
But in removing Lawton from the classroom, the AAUP said UNL administrators violated her academic freedom by caving to external political pressure.
An investigation also concluded that UNL failed to provide Lawton with the appropriate hearings outlined in university policy and commonly practiced in American institutions of higher education.
In its release, the AAUP noted that while UNL administrators said the action against Lawton was neither a suspension or a dismissal, an op-ed penned by Chancellor Ronnie Green and printed in several newspapers last November left little room for other interpretations.
"(Lawton) will not teach at our university going forward because of (her) inappropriate behavior," Green wrote.
The AAUP said it "considers an action to separate a faculty member from ongoing academic responsibilities prior to demonstration of stated cause in an appropriate proceeding to be a suspension."
It also "regards a suspension that is not followed by either reinstatement or the opportunity for a hearing to be a summary dismissal in violation of academic due process," the organization said in its release Saturday.
In an email after the censure vote, Lawton said she "would have preferred that NU's administration respected academic freedom and due process in the handling of my case in the first place, rather than getting censured after the fact."
UNL has not admitted any wrongdoing in removing Lawton from the classroom, and accused the AAUP of basing its decision on inaccurate information.
Green said Saturday he was disappointed in the AAUP's vote, adding he was also concerned with the organization ignoring corrections administrators insisted upon both in April and late May.
"In this instance, I continue to stand by a decision that I believe was in the best interest of our university community," Green said in a statement.
NU President Hank Bounds backed Green in a statement, saying he, too, felt the AAUP made its decision based on "inaccurate and misleading information."
"It's too bad the AAUP was not interested in the constructive dialogue the Chancellor sought," he wrote. "Instead, the AAUP chose to paint a picture of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that is inconsistent with the institution we know."
UNL also continued to criticize the AAUP report, accusing the group of basing its findings on a fluid set of reasonings.
Deb Fiddelke, UNL's chief communications officer, said the professors' organization acknowledged in its May 10 report that Lawton had been offered an opportunity to file a grievance with UNL.
The AAUP later changed its report in a June 2 statement by the Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure — which reviewed the report and ultimately recommended censure — that the university refused to afford Lawton "a hearing on the substantive grounds for her dismissal."
"This specific grievance process would have reviewed the substantive grounds, which was offered to Ms. Lawton and she declined to avail herself of it," Fiddelke said. "It's shocking the AAUP would base its actions on such conflicting statements and glaring inaccuracies."
Speaking to the AAUP assembly Saturday, Stephen Ramsay, a professor of English at UNL, said faculty agreed with the report's conclusion that administrators bowed to political pressure.
He said Lawton was removed from her teaching position "without the required hearings for either a faculty member or a student, without the input of the faculty charged with evaluating her fitness as a teacher, and according to a varied and changing set of rationales manifestly unrelated to her abilities as an instructor."
"The overall conclusion of the report is disquieting indeed," Ramsay said.
David Moshman, a professor emeritus at UNL, said the local chapter of the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska reached a similar conclusion as the AAUP last fall: "UNL's treatment of Courtney Lawton was an egregious violation of due process."
"In the face of intense political pressure, UNL violated its own normal procedures for making academic and disciplinary decisions," Moshman said in an email. "We agree with the AAUP decision to censure UNL and hope UNL will take whatever steps are necessary to restore its standing with the AAUP."
State Sen. Steve Erdman, who had emailed Green last fall demanding firing Lawton from her teaching duties and removing her from the graduate program, wrote in a blog post to his website June 1 that Nebraskans shouldn't care about UNL being added to the Censure List.
Nor should they care about professors being added to Turning Point USA's "Professor Watch List," which included faculty members the group deemed too liberal, Erdman wrote.
"Actually, neither of these two lists should matter nearly as much as the opinion of the people of Nebraska," Erdman said, who went on to chastise the AAUP's "radical agenda" of protecting left-leaning professors on campus.
If any action should be taken against UNL, Erdman said it should be because of Lawton's protest — not the administration's reaction to it — he said, offering his support to Green and Bounds for their actions.
What ramifications censure has on UNL may not be known for some time, faculty members say. But they are certain the AAUP's action will affect the university going forward.
Scholarly societies, including large institutions like the American Historical Association, which posts open positions for history professors, will flag censured universities for job-seekers — "a kind of 'asterisk' next to the ad indicating that the institution is currently under AAUP censure," Ramsay said.
Bruce Rosenstock, a professor of religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which was placed on the Censure List in 2015 and removed last year, called censure "a game-changer."
"The administration is now drawn between two powerful allies, its internal faculty and students who wish to argue that an injustice has been made, and an external body that is giving external objective support to that internal faculty group’s claim," Rosenstock said.
"There is nothing more powerful in the arsenal of those on campus who want to defend academic freedom than AAUP censure."